SOMA is a fantastic science fiction tale that just happens to be trapped within the limitations of the medium it was designed for. As a horror game, it’s by far Frictional Games’ best, with one of the best conceits and design ever to come out of Amnesia: The Dark Descent‘s developers.
Unlike the first Amnesia, which oozed with ambiance but lacked a decent narrative to tie it all together, SOMA is a tightly packed combo of both as it tells the story of Simon, a Toronto native with a seemingly normal life. As you’d probably expect, that turns out to not be the case, a few minutes into the game, when an experimental procedure aiming to help Simon overcome cerebral injuries sustained in a car accident turns his life inside out.
For some, the thought of having an horror game taking place in Canada would seem like the perfect pitch, but SOMA is set within the gloomy confines of PATHOS-II, an underwater facility that houses an unspeakable horror. And for the first few sections of the game, you’re bound to feel as lost as Simon while he explores what seem to be the abandoned corridors of the station.
It would be a disservice to spoil SOMA‘s plot, safe to say it goes to some incredible places within the human psyche. And differently from a lot of media of its kind, SOMA respects your intelligence by not over-delivering on exposition nor skimping on it, leaving pieces conveniently out of order for you to put together at your leisure.
Much like Frictional’s previous games, SOMA is a first-person exploration game with practically no combat whatsoever and touches of stealth-based gameplay to keep you on your toes. Puzzles are few and far between, and are easily put together if you have enough patience to pay enough attention to the clues that the game gives you.
The real start of the show, though, is PATHOS-II and its many different environments. Granted, if you’ve had any experience with horror science fiction, you’ll know what to expect to see, but it all goes beyond the rust, blood and leaking oil. With a slight and probably unavoidable cue from Bioshock, SOMA has you exploring the deep sea as well, and it’s during those moments that SOMA‘s fantastic setting really come together, thanks to some of the best sound design you’re likely to see in a game these days.
Still, there are some issues with the game that detract from the overall experience. The little there is of actual danger within SOMA is potentially deadly if you decide to ignore it and huff around like an fool within PATHOS-II. For most of the game, though, you’ll be fine taking it easy and listening to the now trademark way of story delivery through audio logs as you make your way deeper within.
It’s at the latter half of SOMA that things turn a little annoying, thanks to a particularly keen — let’s call it an “obstacle” — that isn’t nearly as numb as the others. In fact, it’s a bit too good at tracking you, much like the xenomorph in Alien: Isolation. But since there’s no way to shoo it like there is in that other game, you’re forced to start over if you die. Surely enough, even though that’s just a small negative section in the tense ten hours you’ll spend with game, it’s still worth mentioning.
There’s very little actual interaction in SOMA, other than the limited way you can move things by using Frictional’s unique form of analog physics that ties all interactions with objects to how hard you move your controller’s stick or mouse. Most of the fiddling you’ll do is quite simple and thankfully never really gets in your way, which is a plus, because it would be an anchor chained to SOMA‘s ankles, dragging its wonderful narrative with it.
Very few horror games have managed to convey such a tale as SOMA does. In fact, the ‘horror’ classification can be tossed out the window in that regard. This is one of the best videogame stories you’re likely to run across. Scratch that. You’ll be much safer sneaking your way through it.